With the growing number of suicides among the victims of teenage bullies, this age-old problem is again being recognized as a problem in public schools. The surprising thing is that, while the suicides have made news, bullies have always been around. And their victims have always had higher rates of suicide, lower attendance rates and higher odds of turning to violence to settle the score. (Before the recent suicides, the shootings at Columbine and Paducah previously brought the evils of this cruel teenage hobby to the news. Obviously, little serious efforts and/or resources have been dedicated to the issue.)
I wasn’t gay. I didn’t consider myself a nerd. I wasn’t overweight. I did have a speech handicap. My voiced consonants and unvoiced consonants became confused on the way from my mind to my mouth, resulting in words like “vudge” instead of “fudge or “dog” became “tog.”
During elementary school, my speech problem wasn’t a big deal. I started receiving therapy while still in Head Start. I left my regular class room two hours a week for therapy and no one noticed. I had friends, was voted one of the most outstanding girl scouts and was often invited to sleepovers. While most of the students were the same, something changed during the summer between elementary and middle school. The harassment and the pain began on day one when I was called on in social studies to answer a question. One of the students mocked my speech pattern and even the teacher thought it was funny.
For the next three years, my life became hell. My speech problem was just the beginning. While I bought my clothes the same place everyone else did, somehow what I wore became funny. My hairstyle earned me a ditsy nickname although my sister helped me fix it every morning. Every week, I was told a different student would be waiting for me after school to beat me up for some imaginary offense I had committed. I had to keep a close watch on my property or it would be stolen. My pencils would then be posted in the hallway and labeled “Do Not Touch…Contaminated With Amanda Germs.”
The friends that used to invite me over for sleepovers? I wasn’t even welcome to sit with them at lunch anymore. I usually ate lunch with another girl, who was also picked on from the first bell to the last one each day. This very bright girl did not have a speech problem. She was uncoordinated and could not play sports. P.E. was mandatory, so she was taunted with shouts of “easy out” when it came her turn at bat. I would like to say that she and I formed a bond through those incredibly difficult years, but we didn’t. The pain and the shame was just too much to talk about even between two people in the same situation. The whole school knew where we were on the social ladder, but we couldn’t even admit it to each other.
My parents loved me and wanted to fix my problems. Their efforts actually made it worse, largely because of the ignorance of school administrators and teachers. When their protests brought no change, mom and dad would encourage me with advice like “just ignore them” and the famous “the kids only make fun of you because they’re jealous.”
I remember one night in the seventh grade when I just didn’t think I could take another day of it. I am thankful that my parents had no guns or knifes or ropes or even strong medicine in our home. I took about 20 extra-strength Tylenol. I realize now that I was lucky that the medicine just made me sick. Then, my failure at the weak attempt just reinforced what the kids at school said about me.
My suicide attempt failed. I now consider myself a well-adjusted adult with a successful career and valuable relationships. Few of my friends even know that I was a victim of bullying. So, how did I make it through when so many others failed?
First, I discovered my faith in God at an early age. I clung to His promise that I was uniquely created and had a purpose in life. Even though my parents could not help me, they surrounded me with love and provided the safest home I could ever imagine. They encouraged me to dream and to realize that middle and high school are just passing phases Finally, a few teachers provided encouragement. Sometimes, it came in the form of calling out bullies in class. The support from teachers was more often subtle: sending a note home with my grade card or saying a few kind words after class.
Between eighth and ninth grade, most of my classmates grew up. And I grew tired. When a ringleader mocked my speech problem in my sophomore year, I challenged her to meet me in the bathroom after class and we could let our fists do the talking. I had never been in a fight before and I don’t know what would have happened if she had met me there. I didn’t have to worry. She was a no show.
I don’t wish harm on anyone. The adage “what comes around goes around” has held true for most of my classmates, largely due to their own immaturity, self-centeredness and spoiled upbringing. One has had to live with a horrible tragedy. She was driving drunk one night and killed her sister in a car accident. Her parents were able to buy her way out of legal consequences, but I have no doubt that the consequences of that night have shaped her life. Many later found themselves battling addiction.